UPDATE 10.00am Tuesday: Austin has been released. NM spoke to him via online chat. He’s safe and well in Cairo. He returned home to find the locks on his apartment had been changed. Austin says he’s physically OK after his 56 hours of detention.
He, Aliya and Derek could hear torture taking place in cells nearby and were shown videos of torture on mobile phones by police officers while they were waiting for progress.
The Australian embassy is now providing legal advice and support to Austin. He says, "we had lawyers coming out our ears once people knew where we were" — but the activists were way ahead of them.
The activists who helped Austin and his colleagues were those who have agitated in support of recently-freed political blogger Maikel Nabil.
He says the charges are subject to an "open investigation" and he expects to be deported.
UPDATE 9.30am Tuesday: Austin’s sister Hillier tweets: "I’m talking to Austin now. Charges not dropped but they’re released! Prosecutor still has his belongings. Still could be deported."
UPDATE 2.30pm Monday: Austin was granted a short phone call to his family. He is still detained and expects to be deported soon.
10.00 Monday: We’d planned to run an article on the 11 February anniversary of the ousting of Hosni Mubarak in Egypt today. Austin Mackell, a regular contributor to NM, was due to file from Mahalla, where a day of strikes and civil disobedience was planned. He was set to report on the role of unions in the upheaval in Egypt over the last year.
The story won’t appear because Austin, along with his translator, Aliya Alwi, and a US student, Derek Ludovici, have been detained by Egyptian authorities and charged with inciting protest and vandalism in Mahalla.
Al-Jazeera reported: "General Mostafa Baz, police chief of the northern Gharbiya province, told reporters the four were suspected of having co-ordinated over the internet to meet in Mahalla, which has a history of labour strikes, to ‘incite people to protest’."
The Al-Jazeera report continued, "Accusations of alleged foreign meddling in Egyptian politics have increased in recent weeks. Authorities in Cairo are prosecuting 43 foreign and Egyptian activists, including about 20 Americans, who had worked for pro-democracy groups, including US -based organisations."
Aliya Alwi has been issuing sporadic tweets from detention. Before the arrest, she wrote, "Just experienced some aggression from the locals here in #Mahalla towards journalists." and then, "Our car got rocked and beaten against the glass, got called a whore and all sorts of things. Police escorted us to station #Mahalla".
Something changed and she then reported that three witnesses, including an 8-year-old, had been brought in to testify that the group was inciting strikers.
Austin tweeted about the trip too before he headed off. "Logging off for the night now, tomorrow will be heading to #Mahalla to see how the #Feb11 strike goes there. No smartphone follow@aliyaalwi".
Mahalla, where Austin is accused of inciting protest, is an important site in the history of the Egyptian labour movement. It was the textile workers of Mahalla who called a general strike on 6 April 2008. The April 6 Movement, which played a critical role in organising the protests in Tahrir Square last year, was formed to support the workers of Mahalla. (Labour activist Kamal al-Fayyumi and a driver were arrested at the same time as the group. Social media reports now indicate that they have been released.)
New Matilda supports calls for the immediate release of Austin Mackell. We urge Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd to make every effort to secure the release of Austin and his colleagues.
As of this morning, Australian consular officials had not seen Austin but had spoken to him on the phone.
Local activist Shahira Abouellail reported via Twitter that the Australian embassy had not sent anyone to the courtroom where the case was being heard against him. She wrote to Austin’s sister, Hillier Mackell, "we told ur embassy and they didnt send anyone but we r here, don’t worry, they will b released, not worried at all."
Accounts on Twitter at publication suggest that Austin will be deported but these have not been officially confirmed. Hillier Mackell said the family had received very limited information from DFAT and that Twitter was more up to date.
Austin has filed stories from Cairo on the Egyptian revolution for NM and for many other outlets. He’s an experienced journalist and we unconditionally support his immediate release. Read his NM archive here.
Sign a petition for his release here.
We will update this page with news about Austin and his colleagues as we receive it.
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